Tom "Durrrr" Dwan interview

Bluff May 2012 cover

01 May 2012

The King of Online Poker is in exile. Unable to play online in his homeland, he roams the globe in search of action. On the anniversary of Black Friday, we tracked him down to Macau to talk about Full Tilt, the future of poker in the US and to find out just how life has changed for Tom “durrrr” Dwan.

"I don’t personally think I’ve redefined poker. I’m just trying to get all the chips, like everyone else.

We saw you at the Party Poker Premier League. You looked tired. We’re worried you’re not getting enough sleep, what with all the jet-setting?

Yeah, in Austria I definitely wasn’t getting enough sleep because my schedule was all messed up, but on the whole I’m sleeping OK. I’m pretty good at it.

One year on, how has Black Friday changed your life?

Obviously before I was playing online a lot. I also had a deal with Full Tilt so it meant I was in the US a lot more than I am now. I was playing online more often. Obviously you can't do under US law. Also I got paid a bunch of money from Full Tilt that obviously I'm not getting any more. It's negative across the board.

What have you been doing for the last year?

I've been playing a lot of poker. I've been in Macau a lot, in Europe for a bit. I played in a few European tournaments, cash games in Macau. I've been in Vegas some, but less than I would have been after Black Friday. A lot of my plans were related to playing online at Full Tilt and a lot of those got messed up. That happened to a lot of people.

Have you considered moving out of the US permanently so you can play online?

I've been close to doing that a few times and then games sprung up and I've played for a while. There had been times when there was action wherever I was. In Vegas, London, Macau. If there hadn't been action I probably would have gone and done that.

So you've been playing more live than online?

Yeah. I’ve been playing a tonne of live games since Black Friday, which I obviously didn’t do that much beforehand.

How did you react to Black Friday at the time? Were you devastated?

My first reaction to the news after it came out was that I thought that the process that had happened to cause the sites to be shut down was a little bit corrupt and it made me pretty unhappy. But in hindsight you can't blame them that much for shutting down the sites because Tilt didn't have all the money.

What's your take on the Full Tilt fiasco one year on?

I think it’s completely ridiculous that they didn't have all the money. They had a really valuable company. I think the only thing that they had to do to keep it valuable was to have all the players' money. From an ethical standpoint, the only two things they had to do were to make sure they had all the money and make sure there was no cheating. And that shouldn’t be that hard. It was pretty ridiculous.

So you feel it was mismanagement rather than malicious business practices?

I think you’re definitely putting words into my mouth trying to get me to say that. I’m not sure, but if I had to bet, it doesn’t seem like outright theft, but it was borderline criminal business practices. I’m not sure which side of the borderline it’s on but it’s not for me to decide.

Do you think that Full Tilt and maybe online poker players in general should have predicted Black Friday?

Yes. A whole lot of people realised that there was that chance. It was unfortunate but that was the path the process had taken us down. It just didn’t get legal at the times when it seemed that it should have. Enough things were in place that the site had to break some rules that really shouldn’t have been there.

Some of the earlier laws and rules passed were, in my opinion, and in the opinion of most people who have knowledge of the situation, were ridiculous. In other words, the UIGEA and things like that, which was orchestrated in part by various lobbying groups. However, what should have happened is that Full Tilt should have had all the players’ money and they should have tried to be cooperative with the way the DoJ handled things, but in hindsight you can’t be that mad at the DoJ because Full Tilt didn’t have all the players’ money. It was probably right for the DoJ to come in and shut them down. Obviously there were a lot of things that happened in the years leading up to Black Friday that I don’t really approve of, but I think that the DOJ’s actions were pretty legitimate. I think the DoJ was used as a tool of other interest groups, and that sucks. But if Full Tilt were committing bank fraud, and the DoJ argue they were, that’s a pretty serious crime.

All the DoJ’s actions, or anyone else’s action about not being allowed to play online poker in the US are a lot more forgivable in hindsight because Tilt didn’t have all the players’ money. It was a pretty crazy thing to happen. I think either a lot of mismanagement or a lot of theft is required for that to happen. I hope and think that it was mismanagement but regardless, it was still ridiculous that it happened.

Are you optimistic that players will get paid back eventually?

I’ve heard a lot of rumours. I’ve heard a lot of things. I’m not sure what price I’d put it at. I definitely don’t think that they’re drawing dead and I definitely don’t think that they’re locks to be paid back. I think it’s somewhere in the middle. I think that even in the worst case of no buyer stepping up, players should be getting some amount of cents on the dollar. Tilt did have some assets. I don’t think it’s as completely bleak as some people think, but I feel like it would be a little bit in poor taste for me to put numbers on the situation, since I’ve done that once and been wrong. I thought it was the right thing to do, and I regret being wrong, but I still think I had the right thought process.

But people appreciated that you were willing to come forward and be open.

I’ve been very unhappy over the last year that there hasn’t been enough information coming out of Full Tilt. I don’t think people are conducting themselves the right way. I think that in that situation people should be more forthcoming. I understand the reasons why people aren’t. I think a lot of the owners are still good human beings, but I still disagree with their decision not to come forward more.

Moving forward, it’s important to rehabilitate the reputation of poker in America because of the damage done from Black Friday, online poker specifically...

Yes and there are a few possible ways that could happen. The big casino companies could come in and it would be rehabilitated overnight, as most of those are audited by government bodies, and I don’t think anyone would have any worries playing on a or And hopefully everyone just gets paid out from Full Tilt and it won’t be any issue at all.

A lot of people see you as a representative of the younger generation of poker players. Do you feel any personal responsibility towards rehabilitatating online poker, as a kind of spokesperson?

I definitely don’t feel any responsibility to be a spokesperson. People might see me like that, but I don’t want to fit into that role because I don’t see myself that way. When I was sponsored by a site that went bust and didn’t have the players’ money and people were upset, I felt like I owed it to those people to be forthcoming with the information I had. I tried to get the information out there that I had. I felt it was the right thing to do.

How do you view the future of poker in the US now? What do you hope for and what is a more realistic outcome?

It’s definitely a very dynamic situation. I would assume that there are some people that already know what is most likely to happen. I personally don’t. If I had to bet, I think it’s likely that it will get pretty legal and government sponsored-ish within the next decade. Not government run, but sites would have licences. I think it’s a large favourite, say a 3/1 favourite, in the next decade, maybe 2/1. Who knows if that will be in two years, four years? Who knows if it will start off at the state level? I’m not entirely sure, but it’s hard to imagine, long term, poker not being legal in the US because it’s a pretty crazy thing for the government not to allow.

Moving on, you’re in Macau now. What can you tell us about the big games there?

I’d rather not go into too much detail, but the games have been very big. At times they’ve been good, at times they’ve been bad. There are some very good players playing, but I’d rather not say too much.

Are there any crazy pots you can describe, not naming names?

Most of the craziest pots I have ever played or seen have been in Macau, that’s all I’m willing to say.

Let’s go back to the early days. Tell us about learning process. How did you go from being a donk like the rest of us to being Tom Dwan?

I moved away to college when I was 18 and I just started playing online. I put $50 on Party Poker and just ran it up. I just spent time trying to learn, trying to teach myself. I started trying to evaluate all of my decisions and thought a lot about that, tried to learn as much as I could from other people and just put it all together. My parents knew that I had put the $50 online and had a rough idea of how I was doing. I was pretty open with them. They might have thought I was up $10k when I was actually up $100k, or up $100k when I was actually up a million, but they had a decent idea of what was going on.

You make it sound so easy. Are you a genius or just a bloody hard worker?

I think there’s a big intelligence part to being good at poker, but the most part of it is just hard work and you need to be able to examine your own actions and question them. You need to be able to realise when you did something wrong. It’s very common to see people develop a strategy which they think is right, and actually it may not be that bad, but they’re giving away something and they just don’t revaluate that strategy, so once people figure it out they just start losing. That’s a very common thing.

What’s been your career high so far?

I don’t know that I necessarily have a high or a low point; I kind of look at it as just all one long session.

Your epic battle with Isildur1 was a bit hairy, though. What do you remember about those five days?

Well, I was happy to get action. He was a little better than I thought, but I still liked my side of it. I ran… pretty salty. Then I woke up one day and saw that Brian Hastings had beaten him for $4m and almost broke my computer. I was pretty pissed off.

So you were getting unlucky in those games?

I was not a favourite to lose the £5m in one stretch, I’ll say that much. I’m sure it’s debatable as to how much of it was bad luck, but there was definitely some of it that was.

How do you feel that your generation, and you as the figurehead of that generation, has redefined poker?

I don’t personally think I’ve redefined poker. I’m just trying to get all the chips, like everyone else.

But surely your generation has changed the style and dynamics of the game.

I just think that, over the last ten years, people have been able to play so many hands online, and that has resulted in a lot of people getting better faster. So I think the game has just advanced, but it’s nothing to do with me.